It would be an understatement to say that football’s governing body Fifa have had a few controversies over the last few years. Claims of corruption arose from the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar; subsequently, the tournament will be played in cities and stadiums which have not even been built yet. This was followed by the banning of several Fifa employees, including then-President Sepp Blatter by the Fifa ‘ethics committee’ for a £1.3m payment made to Michel Platini in 2011.
Now, new President Gianni Infantino has announced plans to expand the World Cup from 32 teams to 48 teams for the 2026 World Cup. This decision has mostly been met with scepticism, but there are some who agree with the change, including SFA chief executive Stewart Regan. He believes this is a ‘positive’ step as the new structure will give smaller nations a better chance of qualification, citing the impact that smaller nations such as Iceland and Wales had at Euro 2016.
Also, given Scotland’s inability to qualify for a major tournament since 1998 – a statistic that looks like continuing beyond the 2018 World Cup in Russia – this could provide the perfect scenario for Scotland to re-join the world’s elite on the international stage once again.
However, there are criticisms surrounding the new plans. Many believe it to be a money-making scheme for Fifa, which, given recent accusations of corruption, does not seem too far-fetched. Recent Fifa research has predicted that, under the new 48-team structure, World Cup revenue will increase to £5.29bn – a profit rise of £521m.
This exemplifies the problems of modern football: the passion for the game is all but lost and has been replaced with the need to make as much money as possible, highlighted by the recent increase in players moving to China to make the big bucks.
There are also many who say that the football will suffer on the pitch due to the extension of participants. At the European Championships in France last year, a similar expansion occurred, increasing the number of participants from 16 to 24.
It was unanimously agreed that the quality of the football on show decreased as a result of the new format. A huge criticism of the tournament was the clear conservatism of most of the teams involved, as in the 51 matches played, 22 were goal-less at half-time and only 108 goals were scored at the tournament (2.12 per match) – the lowest since Euro 1996.
UEFA also introduced the idea that the top four best 3rd place teams would qualify for the knockout stages, seeing as Slovakia, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland all qualified for the knockout stages with just one win in their three group games. Eventual winners Portugal finished 3rd in their group and qualified without even winning a game (three draws).
Euro 2000 winner Thierry Henry claimed that “if teams know that they only need to win one game […] they won’t go forward and I think the new rule killed the group stage games.”
However, a positive of the extension was that many teams had the opportunity to qualify for the European Championships for the first time. Of the five debutants in France – Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Wales – four qualified for the knockout stages, and the efforts of Iceland and Wales will not be forgotten anytime soon.
If the World Cup in 2026 turns out similarly to Euro 2016, any remaining creditability that Fifa have left will surely be lost but, if it means a better chance for Scotland to qualify for the World Cup, then why not?
Image courtesy of Tsutomu Takasu